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Did Stalin Jr. do the right thing by attacking Sanatan Dharma?

There are many things to be said about DMK leader and outspoken dynast Udhayanidhi Stalin’s attack on Sanatan Dharma.

This, as you may recall, took the form of a speech in which Stalin Jr equated Sanatan Dharma with “dengue, malaria, fever, and Corona,” and called for its eradication.


The first thing to be said is that only somebody with no sense of history would be surprised by the younger Stalin’s views. The Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu has been built on a bedrock of anti-Brahminism. As shocking as some people may find the younger Stalin’s remarks, they pale in comparison to what Dravidian political leaders have said over the decades.


   For instance, EV Ramasamy Periyar (who died in 1973), an icon of the Dravidian movement, not only attacked Hindu texts such as the Gita but was also a belligerent atheist. His most famous saying, still inscribed below his statues, was: “There is no God. He who created God is a fool. He who propagates God is a scoundrel. He who worships God is a barbarian.”


   This is strong stuff, much stronger than anything the younger Stalin said, and though Hindu activists have tried to get the inscriptions removed from statues either by going to court or by vandalising them, nothing they have done has had any effect. Periyar’s rhetoric, like his legacy, endures.


   Nobody in politics disputes that this is the central reality of the Dravidian movement. National parties like the Congress and the BJP have aligned with the two Dravidian parties (the DMK and the Anna DMK) fully aware of their stands on religion and Hinduism in particular. To pretend to be shocked by it all now is sheer hypocrisy.


   The second thing to be said about Udhayanidhi’s remarks is that the younger Stalin went nowhere near as far as others have done. Even his more illustrious grandfather, M Karunanidhi, created a controversy by finding a link between the word Hindu and the word “Thief”. When Karunanidhi died, he was not cremated as per Hindu practice, but buried, like MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa before him.


   Given this background, Udhayanidhi’s statements about eradicating Sanatan Dharma would not be particularly shocking, even if he was attacking Hinduism itself—which, he says, he wasn’t—and not just one version of it.


   The real problem is that nobody agrees on what Sanatan Dharma means. As the scholar and writer Devdutt Pattanaik points out, Sanatan Dharma can mean various things: “faith in eternal things; faith in soul and rebirth, faith in the caste system; faith in the doctrine of purity.”


   This multiplicity of meanings allows politicians, says Pattanaik, to “pick and choose a meaning that suits their agenda.”


   In the Dravidian movement, the term Sanatan Dharma was taken to mean a hierarchical form of Hinduism that mistreated the lower castes and promoted Brahminical superiority. In North India, however, politicians use it to mean whatever suits their convenience at the time they use it.


   There was, in the 19th century, a specific sense in which the term was used. That was when reform movements like the Arya Samaj were challenging the old Brahminical order. The reformers were opposed by traditionalists who were called ‘sanatanis” or followers of the old ways. Pattanaik argues that the sanatanis created Hindutva, based on eternal (as in old or sanatani) beliefs.


"Given that the country is hopelessly confused about the distinction between Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism, there is nothing for the united national opposition to gain by playing into the BJP’s hands."

   The third thing to be said about Stalin Jr’s critique is that all these historical backgrounds don’t matter much—except perhaps in the context of Dravidian politics. In the rest of India, because few people know what Sanatan Dharma means (and even they disagree with each other), the BJP has been able to conflate any attack on any single aspect of Hinduism with Hinduism itself.


   That the BJP should manage to do this successfully is a tribute to the manner in which it has reshaped national discourse. It can venerate Dr BR Ambedkar, for instance, while drawing a discreet veil over all that he said in his critique of Hinduism. It can align with the ideological descendants of Periyar while pretending to forget what Periyar thought of Hinduism.


   Even the greater challenge—to stop being seen as the party of the upper castes—has been overcome. For years, the RSS and its political arms such as the Jana Sangh and the BJP, were seen as Brahmin-dominated, bania-financed parties, which had no appeal among the lower castes.


   But now, as Amrith Lal pointed out in a perceptive article in Hindustan Times on Wednesday, the BJP “has ceased to be the exclusive preserve of upper caste Hindus.” He adds, “Its deployment of a muscular religious nationalism has allowed the BJP to seek custodianship of Hinduism.”


   The fourth thing to be said is that other political parties have facilitated the BJP’s claim to represent all Hindus. Dalit-dominated parties such as the BSP have cosied up to the BJP. So have smaller Dalit parties in return for ministerships and the like. The caste coalitions forged by Amit Shah for electoral purposes have made it easier for the BJP to transform its image.


   So too has the primitive knee-jerk secularism of much of the Congress and its supporters, which has alienated Hindus. Even now, if Rahul Gandhi visits a temple, it is ‘secular’ commentators who attack him the most fiercely.


   So finally, given this background, did Stalin Jr. do the right thing by launching an attack on Sanatan Dharma?


   In my view, it was a disastrous tactical error. He had nothing to gain from the attack and there were no votes to be won; everyone in Tamil Nadu knows what the DMK’s view is and its primary opponent, the Anna DMK, is hardly going to counter it by defending Brahmins.


   The only purpose the attack served was to win Stalin Jr. some national headlines. Given that the country is hopelessly confused about the distinction between Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism, there is nothing for the united national opposition to gain by playing into the BJP’s hands.


   The BJP’s strategy in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election has been to divert attention away from the shortcomings in its governance by focusing on emotive issues of religion and identity. Every time the Opposition turns a religious matter of no immediate relevance into a national issue, it plays the BJPs game.


   So yes, Dravidian politics has a long history of opposing religion and yes, Sanatan Dharma is a complex and controversial concept. But if the senior Stalin and the DMK really want to defeat the BJP at the next general election, it might be a good idea to tell Junior to pipe down.




  • Philip Heath 07 May 2024

    So, I have conflicting views concerning the substance of this piece. Devdutt Pattanaik is not a scholar of Sanathan Dharma. And the country is not completely perplexed by the differences between Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism. India, also known as Bharat, has a long history of deep intellect and mature

  • Rao 18 Sep 2023

    Well, I've mixed feelings about the content of this article. Devdutt Pattanaik is not a scholar of Sanathan Dharma. And the country is NOT hopelessly confused about the distinction between Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism. There is significant deep thought & mature wisdom in India, that is Bharat, amassed over thousands of years.

Posted On: 14 Sep 2023 11:00 AM
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